The recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh has highlighted the globalized nature of today's apparel industry. On this edition of Valley Public Radio's commentary series The Moral Is, Fresno State professor Madhusudan Katti says that it's time we look at the true cost of fast fashion.
Are my hands clean?
That question haunts me, as it should anyone paying any attention to the still rising death toll from the most recent garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. Underpaid workers labored long hours there under unsafe conditions to produce garments most of us wait to buy from the sale rack, or in Black Friday deals.
Are my hands clean?
Sure. After all, it wasn’t you or me who ran that factory so brutally, ignoring even minimum safety. It wasn’t you or me who outsourced the jobs to that factory. That is the work of corporations anxious to maximize profits for a “healthy” bottom line. All you and I want is that cheap deal on some decent clothes. All most of us want to afford are the cheap deals, but what should we do when they come at such a high human cost?
Why is the high human cost of our consumer goods never part of the price on that sale tag? After all, this is not the first such tragedy in a third world factory producing cheap goods for the first world market, nor will it be the last. How is it that the corporations, at least some of which have honestly humble origins, run by decent human beings, feel free to ignore these tragic costs from their balance sheets when reporting their earnings to share holders? How do we allow corporations citizenship in our very democracy, yet not force them to accept responsibility towards the human beings who produce their products?
Replace Bangladesh with the BP oil spill three years ago, and the same question looms larger. Instead of 1100 human beings (and counting), the victims number in the unfathomable populations of uncountable species of other living beings. When we allow corporations to ignore even basic human rights in their pursuit of profits by satisfying our desire for cheap goods, what chance is there of any honest accounting of the ecological costs of their business, and our deals?
Some economists now call for a truer accounting of corporate balance sheets, reflecting the real costs and benefits of their supply and production chains in human and environmental terms. The deal we get on the sale price, they argue, must be balanced by the real total cost of production. A recent study concluded that none of the world’s top industries would be profitable if they were forced to pay for all of the costs that are currently external to their balance sheets. But surely, more of these externalities must be accounted for if we are to enjoy our goods without the guilt of the human and ecological costs incurred by enticing price tags.
Are our hands clean? We must all honestly confront that question, and find an answer, collectively.
For The Moral Is, this is Madhusudan Katti.
The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.